An MP’s proposal for independent constituencies in Scotland raises some interesting questions, writes Michael Kelly
You never know when to take Ian Davidson, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons select committee on Scottish affairs seriously. He was the person who, on very little evidence, accused Newsnight Scotland of anti-unionist bias. He lost that argument, although given the turmoil that the national section of the programme is in, he might well be tempted to revisit it even more aggressively.
In the meantime, he has thrown another curve ball into the referendum debate. He is arguing that, no matter the outcome of the national vote, those constituencies that vote No be allowed to remain part of the United Kingdom.
It is difficult to judge the seriousness of this proposal, especially as Davidson is basing it on the fact that Govan (part of his Glasgow South West constituency) was at one stage a burgh independent of Glasgow. Tongue in cheek, surely, he hypothesises that this may indicate an earlier, even more independent status for the Glasgow suburb. When he goes on to argue that it might offer a quick way back into Europe for the Govan national team, Rangers, you know he cannot be serious. Football in the United Kingdom under Fifa is not governed along the lines of statehood. In or out of the rest of the UK, Rangers would remain governed by the SFA. And, anyway, what need is there to offer Rangers’ fans another reason to vote No? None of them is going to vote to break up Britain.
Yet Davidson insists that, through all of this nonsense, there is an important constitutional point. Let’s see if we can find it. His argument must first rely on the United Nations’ right of a people to self-determination – which, of course, is the cornerstone of the SNP’s claim for Scotland. It would seem unlikely that Govan would constitute a “people”. However, fortunately for Davidson, there is not yet a recognised legal definition of “peoples” in international law. It can be as broad as “a group of individuals who unanimously choose a separate state”. Even if many in Govan have for years claimed that they are “the people”, this may not be sufficient to satisfy the UN.
However, there is one interesting question thrown up: how is the referendum vote to be counted and announced? Will the result be revealed constituency by constituency or by what used to be regions, or will we simply see figures for the overall Scottish vote? As all matters concerning the vote are now in the hands of the Scottish Parliament, it is a question that must be answered soon for the sake of clarity. The fear of the vote displaying wide regional variations might well be a reason why the SNP would wish to declare a single result. And they could justify that on the grounds that the national position is what counts. It has now been agreed that this is a single-question vote with no minimum thresholds to be crossed to win. Fifty per cent plus one will be sufficient authority for the Scottish Government to enter into breakaway negotiations. By that criterion, there is no need to disclose subdivisions of the vote.
But, especially if the vote were tight, other parties would demand to know whether or not that single figure hid significant variations. Certainly the Lib Dems, who represent Orkney and Shetland, would want their local vote to be disclosed. They are already talking about making these far-flung islands enclaves of the UK if Scotland decides to secede. Davidson’s argument follows that logic and, as such, has a certain justification. How the SNP reacts to it will indicate how far it is prepared to allow its principle of self-determination to be used against it. But Davidson’s idea would have to apply to geographical areas larger than constituencies. It simply wouldn’t be practical to have his own constituency of Glasgow South West sitting like West Berlin, isolated from the rest of the UK. At least it has an airport, so supplies could be airlifted in the event of a Scottish blockade. It sounds like the plot of the 1940s Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico: completely impractical.
However, based on past local election results, it is not fantasy to envisage a scenario where a peculiar coincidence of widely varying turnouts and patterns of voting resulted in, say, the whole of the west of Scotland – Glasgow, North and South Lanarkshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire and Ayrshire – voting No while Yes squeezed out an overall national majority. The same thing might happen in Edinburgh and its hinterland, or Aberdeen. If this were to be the result in any significant part of Scotland, both geographically and economically the political leaders in those areas would certainly demand that the situation be reviewed.
They would be joined by Westminster, determined to protect the integrity of the country. The result would be a bloody, bitter battle which would leave the Scottish psyche forever scarred. The enclave idea would not be carried. It would be a farce to operate the UK in that way. The rump of Scotland would have even less chance of forming a credible state. Another vote would be called for and the subsequent Holyrood and Westminster election results would be used by either side to justify their claims.
Nationalists might well wish to dismiss all this as wild speculation – a prospect so unlikely that it is not worth considering. However, Scotland has vacillated before. The 1979 referendum on proposals for a Scottish assembly produced a narrow majority in favour, but the low turnout of 63 per cent meant that the 40 per cent minimum Yes vote was not achieved and the plan fell. In that vote, despite 51 per cent voting Yes, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Grampian and Tayside voted No.
Despite both governments pledging to accept the referendum result, a narrow and conflicting one would cause significant political confusion. Davidson may feel that Govan poses an important question. Those who want a stable and permanent solution to our constitutional wrangling fear it is just another blind alley.